Posted January 10, 2011:
What is Sobornost?

by Paulette Curran.

Catherine not only taught us about unity, she also taught us about sobornost, a Russian concept of unity that goes much deeper. Several years ago, in answer to a question someone asked me, I wrote the following letter.

Dear Stanley,

It’s not surprising you have trouble understanding sobornost. Catherine had a very hard time explaining it to us and kept saying in frustration that it was such a foreign thing for us North Americans.

I certainly don’t understand it completely myself; I can only try to put words around how I see it.

It is unity, but a very specific kind of unity, and a very deep one. It is a deep unity of heart and mind on an important matter, a unity that comes not from simply having the same opinion or thinking the same way.

It comes when God communicates his way of seeing it, his will in the matter, to the people making the decision. They see it the same way because they see it God’s way. And obviously this can only come as a gift from God.

The example Catherine taught us was a way of electing our directors general by sobornost. We who live in democracies of course see an election as a democratic process, as selecting a leader by a majority vote. Sobornost is very different from that.

There are three directors general in Madonna House: one of men, one of women, and one of priests. Each group elects its own.

When, for example, the women have an election, there are no candidates and no one is on the ballot. Theoretically, we can vote for any woman member. And nobody talks about whom they are voting for.

The idea is not to look for who we think would make a good director general. In faith we believe that God has someone in mind for the job and that our part is to pray and fast and listen to him in our hearts until he reveals to us who that person is.

So we pray and vote in a secret ballot, and each woman is given the results: the number of votes each person has received. Until the vote is unanimous, we continue to pray and have as many ballots as it takes to achieve that unanimity, that sobornost.

Seeing the results of the ballot helps. For if I see that the votes for "X" are increasing, and I have been voting for "Y," it behooves me to pray and listen harder. Is it the majority who are hearing God’s will? Am I "hearing right" or not?

Does this make sense?

There is another example which sometimes happens in the community where people are really trying on an ongoing basis to make decisions according to God’s will.

Sometimes a decision is made or someone suggests something at a meeting and something moves in me—just a deep sense that this is right, that this is God’s will. Sometimes the whole group feels this. This is beyond common sense or intelligence. It is a gift of sobornost from God.

Catherine emphasized over and over that sobornost is only for very important matters. It doesn’t matter that we have all sorts of different opinions on lots of things. Sobornost is for the deep things of God.

And when it is a decision other than an election but serious enough to move by sobornost, it involves lots of communication and using your intelligence as well.

But after the communication, the sharing of ideas, the studying the matter, Catherine would say, comes the time of "folding the wings of your intellect." How does God see he matter? What does he want us to do?

Moreover, our three directors general, the ones who are in the end responsible for making the important decisions in our community, do so by sobornost. No one is over the other two. They talk and pray until they are of one mind. Only then do they make a decision.

This way of living is one of deep faith. It requires letting go of one’s desires and opinions. It requires a tremendous openness and listening to one another and to God. And it requires a deep trust in God: that he in fact has a will in the matter and that if we pray and listen, he will reveal it to us.

I hope this helps. I’ve tried putting words around sobornost, but ultimately, its deep reality is beyond words.


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